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The Caribbean girl who ruled France


NATASHA BECKLES, [email protected]

The Caribbean girl who ruled France

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I’VE MENTIONED THE decapitated statue of Empress Josephine which commands attention in La Savane Park in the centre of Fort-de-France, Martinique.

With its red paint streaks simulating blood, it is a clear signal that the people of Martinique have complicated feelings about the island girl who went on to become Empress of France.

After all, the statue has been in this state for more than 20 years and no one has sought to remove the statue, restore the head or clean up the “blood”. To date, no one knows who removed Josephine’s head in a manner that mimicked the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

It was a fascinating story to learn as I participated in a familiarisation tour organised by LIAT and the tourism authorities in Martinique recently.

Josephine was born across the Bay of Fort-De-France, not far from where her (in)famous statue was erected. Having been born into the upper class, she wasn’t exactly average but her marriage to Napolean Bonaparte definitely represented a major change in fortunes.

Many people in Martinique love the Cinderella-type story but many also blame Josephine for the reinstatement of slavery in the French colonies.

France abolished slavery in 1789, but soon after Napoleon and Josephine began their reign in 1804, it was reinstated. Some believe Josephine agitated for this in an effort to benefit her family’s failing plantation investments.

That’s the reason behind the love-hate relationship and if the statue tells that story, La Pagerie Museum tells another. The main exhibition building is a humble, quaint cottage which belies its role in royal history.

It was the birthplace of Marie-Joseph Rose Tasher de la Pagerie, who was said to be using the name Rose at the time she met Napolean. Rumour has it that Napolean preferred the name Josephine and the rest, as they say, is history.

The cottage used to be the plantation’s kitchen. In those days, kitchens were set apart from the main house to reduce the risk of fire spreading. Today it is filled with art and artefacts from the Napoleonic era, paintings, sculptures and furniture which trace the lives and legacy of the royal couple.

Josephine’s childhood bed is also on display.

After 14 years of marriage, Napolean ditched Josephine for a younger princess, leaving her to die in exile but her rise to glory is well-documented.

If you find yourself in Fort-de-France, talk to the locals and see how they feel about Josephine’s place in history. (NB)

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